Domestic Violence and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
This month, many of the writers here at HealthCentral.com have been focusing on domestic violence in an effort to increase awareness. As a survivor of domestic violence, I am adding my voice (see my other post: Why Women Stay). Millions of women, each year, are subjected to violence at the hands of their partners. While not as common, men also suffer from violence from their spouses and partners. All of us, women and men, who have been victims of domestic violence will agree that the emotional scars last much longer than the physical ones. Our bodies heal much quicker than our heart does. We may fight with depression, feelings of low self-esteem, and, according to various studies, post traumatic stress disorder.
Several years after my abusive relationship, I fell in love with a wonderful, caring (and non-abusive) man. We are still together today but in the early days it was hard for him to understand when I would suddenly pull back or seem afraid. Once, as we were cooking dinner together, he raised his hand. I jumped and moved back. He looked surprised and hurt; he had, after all, simply been reaching for the pepper in the cabinet. But that movement brought back memories and made me feel as if I was in danger. He couldn't believe I didn't trust him but it didn't have anything to do with trust. He knows that now.
It has been many years since I left my abuser and, for the most part, thoughts and fear of abuse no longer fill my days. Even so, I do not watch television shows or movies depicting domestic violence. Although I read constantly, I avoid all books when the plot involved domestic violence. The memories, although usually at bay, come flooding back when confronted with a domestic violence situation, even on television. A few years back I caught a glimpse of a movie that contained scenes of the husband beating the wife before quickly changing the channel. I couldn't sleep for days. I was jumpy and irritable. I think I am over it and then, it all comes back.
Post traumatic stress disorder occurs as a reaction to experiencing or seeing a traumatic event. It is often associated with being in combat or being a victim of child abuse but it can occur after a serious car accident, going through a natural disaster or suffering through domestic violence. A report completed by Margaret J. Hughes and Loring Jones indicates:
- Women who enter a shelter are more at risk of developing PTSD than those that do not.
- Those who had multiple experiences, such as child abuse, sexual abuse and domestic violence are more likely to develop PTSD.
- The more life-threatening the abuse, the more at risk you are.
- Domestic violence victims who develop PTSD are at higher risk of developing depression than those who do not develop PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD
Most symptoms of PTSD fall into four categories:
Flashbacks or reliving the event (or events) usually occurs when confronted with a trigger (such as when my husband raised his hand to reach for the pepper) but sometimes happen for no apparent reason. You feel as if you are going through the event again, feeling the fear all over.
Avoidance, such as refusing to watch television shows that depict domestic abuse, is when you avoid any situation which will remind you of the experience. For me, it is easy enough to change the channel, but for others, this could mean avoiding any person both you and your partner knew or staying away from places or situations that remind you of your partner.
Shutting down your emotions, or numbing yourself, helps protect you from feeling the fear and the hopelessness. But this also stops you from feeling joy, happiness and love.
You may feel jumpy or jittery all the time. I remember feeling this way for several years. I was always looking over my shoulder, jumping when someone came up behind me. It took me, and it may take you, a long time to feel safe again.
While many women in or leaving domestic abuse situations will experience these types of symptoms, not all develop PTSD. Please know that you have already suffered enough. You deserve to be safe, secure and happy. If you find that these types of symptoms are interfering with your life, it may be time to seek help. There are effective treatments for PTSD, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Talk with your doctor and request a referral to a competent therapist specializing in working with domestic violence survivors and PTSD.
For domestic violence resources see: Dealing with Domestic Abuse? Here is Some Help
Women, Domestic Violence and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, 2000, Jan, Margaret J. Hughes and Loring Jones, San Diego State University